10th of October is World Mental Health Day, an annual event that advocates for mental health issues and raises awareness of its impact on society. The movement has elicited support from all manner of individuals, ranging from football players to Bollywood stars to British Prime Minister Theresa May, who has organised a global mental health summit and appointed a Minister for Suicide Prevention. Her actions echo ongoing calls for action and change – but what should that change look like in practice?
Mental health is having a moment in the popular psyche – part of a broader cultural zeitgeist that has centred attention on issues of social justice, activism, and hidden inequalities. Prominent figures have broken their silence on mental health struggle, and in doing so humanised and normalised the question of mental health. Increasingly, mental health has taken centre-stage in institutional design, with schools and workplaces formulating mental health policy to formally addressing these issues. All of this is, of course, great progress. But as with many other movements, we run the risk of complacency. Change has to be more substantive than mission statements and virtue-signalling. Moreover, under the veneer of acceptance, pernicious stigma abounds. Too often, mental health remains framed as a problem for “other people”. Even the most well-meaning amongst us can reveal our implicit biases in the language and approach we take towards capital-letter Mental Health.
More than awareness for its own sake, the onus is on our generation to channel momentum into meaningful and productive change. World Mental Health Day is thus an opportunity for us to have an honest, sophisticated conversation about mental health, to reflect on our own thoughts and practices, and to deconstruct some of the negative – and flawed – perceptions that we have about mental and emotional wellness.
Chief amongst these misconceptions is the idea that mental health is strictly the domain of the “victim” – it conjures the image of someone fragile, weak, and incompetent, contrasted against “normal” functioning members of society. When individuals struggle with mental illness, we levy the blame on them for failing to help themselves, or worse, question the validity of their struggle entirely. But somewhat contradictorily, the burden of proof required to legitimise one’s mental illness is tied to a certain performance of victimisation. In other words, we demand individuals prove that they are “genuinely sick” and not just using mental illness as an “excuse” – but when they reveal the extent of their struggles, we turn around and label them as write-offs. This catch-22 results in mental health concerns being suppressed, despite calls for greater openness and understanding.
The confused nature of societal response hints at a deeper problem: our rigid, archaic notions of sickness and health
People commonly cite the “broken leg analogy” as a means of understanding mental illness – if you had a broken leg, nobody would make you walk on it, so why should it be any different for a broken mind? It’s a simplistic and appealing notion, but one that ignores the nuances of mental health. From a treatment standpoint, mental recovery does not come with the same linear timeline that a physical injury does. Even if there are complications along the way, the road to recovery from a broken leg is clearly book-ended. There are objective checkpoints for progress that ultimately lead to the declaration of a full bill of health.
Mental illness is rather more complex, as this phenomenal piece argues. Recovery is an ongoing process with relapses and improvements and spirals and progress – and to apply an open-and-shut broken leg lens leads to the worrying conclusion that individuals with mental health issues should not be allowed to walk on their metaphorical broken legs at all until completely healed. Firstly, there is the question of what it means to be healed. Does it mean perfect stability – and is this an impossible standard to demand and define? Secondly, what happens to everyone else? Will they be disqualified from education and careers – and if so, how is this any different from out-and-out discrimination? If we approach mental health with empirical stringency, what we effectively create is a police-state where symptoms are buried and struggles concealed until people inevitably implode. And then we point to the implosion and say “I told you so”.
These are difficult questions to address. They are difficult because we do not have good and clear answers. They are difficult because they speak to a larger existential anxiety: our fears over whether we can ever be truly good and well and whole. But a lot of these fears and anxieties hinge upon our narrow conception of what it means to be healthy (and by extension, a regular person). Introducing a plurality of perspectives may go some way towards easing the stigma against mental illness in society.
In fact, a better parallel for mental illness may come in the form of its alliterative friend, myopia. Your eyesight has deteriorated, and it might even be partially your own fault. This deterioration is probably going to get worse for a while before it stabilises. You don’t know if it will necessarily ever get better, or get back to how it used to be. But you can manage the situation by wearing glasses, and get regular checks on your prescription, and nobody is going to shame you or exclude you from activities involving sight (i.e. pretty much any and all activity) just because you need glasses to see clearly. In the long term, your eyesight might improve – especially if you have access to certain corrective procedures. Or it could become disproportionately worse. There’s cataracts and partial blindness and all manner of varietals. But their existence does not signal a death sentence the moment you first find yourself squinting at your television screen.
This is not to say that mental illness does not have debilitating effects for oneself and others, or to suggest that individuals do not have a responsibility for their own mental health. Rather, it’s important to acknowledge the complexities of the mental health conversation, and evolve beyond platitudes of “love yourself” or “think positive” that do nothing to apprehend the actual issues at hand. We avoid a grittier conversation, possibly because we are afraid of broaching the topic of severe mental illness – where individuals can be a harm to themselves and to those around them. We are afraid of talking about them because according to our narrow conception of health and human worth, they are inferior. This is what gives critics of PC culture their cannon fodder: we gloss over the “harsh reality” of life by putting hashtags in front of trite phrases and wearing coloured ribbons for 24 hours. In a way, this critique is not wrong – but activism does not and should not have to be that way.
This World Mental Health Day, let’s reconsider our fundamental assumptions. If we can accommodate a broader definition of human value – one where we do not have to operate at complete efficiency to be valid, and where vulnerability is not vilified – we may actually create an environment where societal functionality and performance improves. This is because it is naive to assume that in our present “harsh reality”, where mental illness is penalised, all contributing members of society are fully mentally stable. If anything, it is more likely that there are numerous individuals who would benefit from some form of support, be it treatment or therapy. High-functioning individuals, to be sure, but people who have been forced to mask any struggles they face in the name of presenting a façade of efficiency. But real efficiency comes from allowing people to recognise and get help for their issues – and it comes from investing in a robust preventative health regime (e.g. changing workplace culture, flexible attendance policies).
We tend to regard these provisions as mollycoddling, but a simple paradigm shift reveals otherwise. Nobody sees hard hats in a construction site as a sign of “softness” – they’re just good, sound logic. There does not have to be a dichotomy between accommodative policies and personal accountability – if anything, they are mutually reinforcing. When schools and workplaces provide access to mental health resources or allow individuals to be open with their issues, it builds goodwill and empowers people to take charge of their own mental health. Ultimately, there is no harsh conservative reality or willful liberal fantasy – there is only the world we live in, what we make of it, and what we believe it to be.
I do not pretend to have all the answers, but my commitment this World Mental Health Day is to start looking for them. It starts with working towards an environment where mental health stigma is not merely reduced, but eradicated. It starts by changing how we see others and ourselves, and by practicing radical empathy to obtain real, effective outcomes. It may even start with this article – the last paragraph ends here, but the rest of the work is just beginning.